Spice Merchants: “a rockin’ cool place that smells good”

If Starbucks has taught us anything, it’s that people are willing to pay a lot more for an experience — even for a product like coffee, which many retailers perceived to be little more than human fuel until Starbucks came along. The difference between a $1.85 cup of garden-variety coffee at Denny’s and a $14 Venti White Chocolate Mocha with 12 shots of espresso, two shots of soy, extra whipped cream, toffee syrup, hazelnut syrup, extra Mocha drizzle and extra Caramel drizzle at Starbucks comes down the luxurious experience of enjoying  gourmet coffee customized the way you want it and the typically hip Starbucks environment. Spice Merchants, a new store in Downers Grove, Illinois, is counting on a sensory experience to attract the kind of people who want to indulge themselves in exotic spice flavors like Thai Coconut Rub instead of picking up a jar of Mrs. Dash at a grocery store.

And although you can visit the store on its Facebook page, Twitter account, and website, Spice Merchants is best experienced in person. The moment you walk in the cozy store on Main Street, you’re transported away from west suburban Chicago and into a cozy little world of hardwood floors, African-made wooden kitchen spoons, and walls lined with spices, coffee, and tea, whose smells, colors, and names invite you to indulge yourself — such as a jar of maize colored ground Habanero spice or a bag of Indian Kari coffee bursting with the aroma of nutmeg, cardamom, ground coffee beans, and a hint of curry.

As a reviewer on Yelp wrote, “LOVE, LOVE, LOVE! Did I mention that I walked in and fell in love?’

So what’s it like to open an exotic spice store in a suburban town? How do you figure out how to create an experience that will create repeat business? Carla Cash, who owns the store with her husband Matt, gave me the inside scoop through the following Q&A. As she explains, Spice Merchants, like her neighboring Downers Grove store Fair Game, reflects the personal passions of the owner. And whereas Fair Game builds its brand through a social experience, Spice Merchants has gotten off to a fast start through word of mouth and the power of networking with other businesses.

Running a small business is notoriously difficult, with the failure rate of small businesses increasing 40 percent over the past three years. Why did you open a small business? And why Spice Merchants?

Wow, well, glad we didn’t talk to you before we decided to go for it.  Our philosophy is that there is always room for another good anything.  And if you do what you love, success will follow. Why open Spice Merchants? We got such a good feel from the Spice Merchants in Saugatuck, Michigan, several years ago that we thought it would be a great fit for downtown Downers Grove and a place we’d enjoy being at.

How would you describe Spice Merchants in one sentence?

A rockin’ cool place that smells good.  The products?  They’re just good stuff.

Describe the kind of customer you are targeting.

We’re a destination for anyone who enjoys quality spices, blends, and teas in a warm and comfortable environment.  And don’t forget the specialty coffees, quinoa, rices, and salt boards!

Also, while we like to think we have whatever spice the most accomplished cook seeks, we also have great blends to help the beginner get started. My husband Matt is a good example. He now thinks a he’s chef because he puts Southwest Blend in his scrambled eggs. And we’d like to think we can satisfy any tea lover’s craving with more than 85 types of tea available.

You don’t have to spend more than 30 seconds in your store to realize you’re selling something a step above Maxwell house coffee. Tell me about some of the more exotic spices and coffees you sell.

It took you 30 seconds?

Our coffee comes from Anthony Grace Collections. His philosophy on products say it all: “Our goal is to create innovative and eclectic products with fusions of flavors that bring decadence to the everyday. We aim to redefine how you think about coffee. Our goal is to create tasty, spice infused treats that are sure to tantalize your taste buds!”

And indeed he has!  We are proud of, and addicted to, his Indian Kari coffee – infused with curry, cardamom, and nutmeg.

Not to mention Star Anise – coffee infused with star anise, cinnamon, orange peel, and cocoa. And his cinnamon and cardamom coffees are most excellent.

What are some of your more popular sellers now?

To our surprise, our Himalayan salt boards have been a huge hit.  Even our franchisor was surprised at the volume being sold.  She’s like, “what is going on in Downers Grove?” I guess people just think they are cool.  They actually are.

As for blends, the Tuscan blend is a huge hit — we think because you can put it on so many things.  The same holds true for our smoked tomato. For rubs, the coffee barbeque and raspberry chipotle have been huge hits.  For teas, cinnamon spice has been very popular, perhaps because of the time of year. Also, peppermint tea is high on many customers’ lists.  And, not making any conclusions or judgments here, but the detox tea has been very popular, especially on weekend mornings. My husband Matt, who is having a scotch while we reply to your questions, is a big fan, too.

What kind of preparation is required to open a store?

A lot.  A whole heck of a lot.

Opening Spice Merchants was so much work because of the particular space we moved into.  Our space was a dance studio before we moved in.  We learned that the DuPage County Health requires a lot more of a space than other locations.  We had to put in a lot of plumbing that we weren’t expecting.  But now we hope we are ready or close to being ready to having tastings and other events.

The other preparation comes down to advertising, stocking the store (including inputting all the inventory into the computer), setting up your-point-of-sale system, pricing all the products, labeling all the baggies and jars, filling all the baggies and jars, making the blends (several of our blends are blended off-site, but we blend many on-site), putting the signs on the windows, and buying furniture for the store. The list indeed goes on and on.

What was the first day like? Any memories stand out?

The first day was amazing. It was like the reception at one of your best friend’s weddings.  You feel like you know everyone. The experience goes by in a blur, and at the end of day, you can’t recall who you talked to and how the day flew by.

We were touched by the community support.  The franchisor told us it was by far the best opening day she had ever had and was truly amazed by the community turned out.  Any memories stand out?  Not one in particular, but rather just the constant fantastic feeling at seeing so many friends, neighbors, and families.  And it was so cool to see so many people turning to each other and visiting with each other. If only we could have had the mull wine going — then we could have had quite a party and sold plenty of detox tea the next day!

You were open on Thanksgiving Day for last-second spice emergencies. How was business? What was the vibe like?

Funny — we actually did have a tea emergency and one carrot cake emergency! Glad to be of service.  Business as measured by sales was very slow, but the vibe was incredible.  I had never been downtown Downers Grove for the Bonfield Express (a 5K run in Downers Grove on Thanksgiving day) as we are frequently traveling to visit family during the holidays.  I was so psyched to be open and be a small part of the day.  A lot of people stopped by on the way to their cars after the run and enjoyed some pumpkin-oatmeal cookies we had out on the sidewalk for samples.  We’d love to be more a part of it next year and plan on reaching out to the planning committee to see how we could do that.  The only down side is that watching the Bonfield Express runners go by made me realize how little I’ve been able to run myself since we opened.

Walk me through your typical day.

I won’t take you through the morning chaos at home.  Lately, with all the holiday orders we’ve been receiving, I’ve been trying to get down to the store as soon as I can, but at least an hour or more before we open so that I can fill the orders.  Then, I hope that I can continue to fill the stock of baggies, bottles, jars, and so on.  However, we’ve had a very good problem lately in that we’ve been busy with customers from the get-go.  One of my favorite parts of the day is being able to speak with the customers and share with them my thoughts on what the store is and what we have, but even more so, to listen to them share their thoughts on the products, cooking, and more.

Many customers have visited the stores in Michigan and are exciting we are here.  Now that we’ve been open for a few months, it’s really cool to hear people come in and share what they’ve done with the spices and how they have enjoyed the blends or their new favorite tea.  In between sharing time with customers, I try to take inventory, place orders, make more gift boxes, plan advertising, figure out what events we can have next month, and meet with vendors who want to come in and sell you spices and teas.

How have you built awareness?

We have built awareness through word of mouth. Customers come into the store and tell us they’re going to bring a friend in the next day, and when they come back with their friend, turns out the friend had been planning on bringing her friend to our store on the same lunch date.

You’ve mentioned to me how networking with shop merchants has helped you. Care to share a few examples?

Every shop merchant I run into seems to care enough to freely share good, well needed advice, such as the most effective hours of operation that work well or how to market myself. The merchants also buy our products for their stores and tell their customers to stop by. And you also learn some delightful surprises from other merchants once you get to know them. For instance, one of the owners of Tribeca cigar store next door to us is a gourmet chef and uses our products. There seems to be no end as to the help other shop owners want to share.  I think in our town, we are fortunate to have shop merchants who genuinely want each other to succeed.

Content marketing — or building your image by sharing useful ideas — is all the rage now. How are you embracing content marketing?

You can find recipes on our site that we share with other Spice Merchants stores. But stay tuned. We’re going to start posting recipes for using spices on YouTube and encourage customers to participate in sharing their own ideas in the store.

Any special holiday promotions we should know about?

No.  Just kidding.  Really, right now the focus seems to be on gift boxes for the holidays.  We have dozens of pre-made gift boxes such as Heat of the Night, Baker’s Special, and Grillman’s Special. However, we decided to allow people to make their own. The boxes and bottles are out. Just pick four or five ($24.95 for 4 bottles, $5 foe each additional bottle, and $7.50 for sea salts), put the bottles in the box, and bring it to me at the counter, and I’ll make it pretty. These gift boxes have gotten really good reviews by our customers. People get to create their very own special customized gifts in a convenient, fun, hassle-free way.

What’s it like running a business in a town after you’ve lived in it? Has your perspective changed?

That’s a great question. (The others were just OK).  We’ve grown to love this downtown, and we thought it would be such a fun, great fit.  It’s so cool being a part of the community in this way and feeling this sense of being a part of it and really contributing to making the downtown what it is, a great place to visit and live in.  We’re also excited to give back to local causes. We decided to choose one charity per quarter and donate 1 percent of our proceeds to that charity. Our first charity is Noah’s Hope, created by a local family afflicted by Batten disease. We also give back 10 percent to Downers Grove Grade School District 58 for any gift boxes and bags sold for one week in December.

And Matt can’t wait to sponsor little league teams!  As to changing perspectives? I always knew we lived in a special town, but I’m just way more aware of that now.

How do you juggle the demands of running a business with being a mom?

Part of the reason we opened the store we did was to be able to share this with the kids. They are able to come down to the store and hang out.  They can do their homework in the back.  We have a television in back, but they  enjoy helping out more.  They are all better at checking people out at the register than my husband is.  However, one time our daughter Annie rang up a bill for $2,676,091.31 (she forgot to apply the 10 percent discount). I’ve also been lucky to have some great friends and neighbors help at the store, which allows me to still be able to duck out to help at school parties and attend school functions.

Spice Merchants a work in progress, but it’s been such a cool work in progress.

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